Digest>Archives> September 2005

Vengurla: The Rock of Nightmares

By I. C. R. Prasad


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

The sky was still dark and there was no sign of sunrise on the horizon. We were climbing down the 263 steps built

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

of rough-cut stones, from Vengurla Point Lighthouse to Vengurla port jetty. The rays from the street lights, provided on the turnings, were sufficient to show me the path. But Mr. P. S. Rawool, assistant lightkeeper, was showing his torch light right on my feet for he was afraid of my stepping on poisonous snakes, which come out from the bushes all around or lie curled on the steps, and can be mistaken for another piece of stone. The boatman’s assistant, with the mailbag to our destination – Vengurla Rock Lighthouse – was following us behind closely. He was a man from the nearby fishing village who was not afraid of snakes, but he feared the ghosts from the cashew nut and mango plantations on the sides of our pathway. The regular boat trips from Vengurla Point to Vengurla Rock are scheduled every Monday. The boat is kept ready at the jetty on Sunday nights, as everybody likes to leave the jetty before daybreak, and be back at shore before the rays of sun become too harsh.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

At the jetty, we met Mr. Balu Kochhreckar, the boatman who has the contract of ferrying man and materials to Vengurla Rock since the withdrawal from service of the M.L. Vengurla – the launch owned by the Department of Lighthouses and Lightships 20 years back. The officers and staff like him, as they feel secure when Kochhreckar is at the helm of the boat. The small tea shop at the jetty was open and Mr. Rawool, assistant lightkeeper who comes from a place called Kudal (20 kilometres away from Vengurla) bought me hot tea.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

By 6:00 a.m., the color of the sky turned red, signaling the imminent daybreak, but the sky color was no match to the red beam that flashed over our heads from Vengurla Point Lighthouse. This was the only major lighthouse I have seen with a red flash. With a 375-mm third order revolving lens and a 3000-watt incandescent electric lamp supplied by M/s BBT France, the beam intensity was sufficient to signal the mariners about a dozen dangerous rocks lined from the shore out to 20 kilometres. Even though the present lighthouse was commissioned only on the 15th of March in 1968, the first light with a vegetable oil lamp placed inside a 200-mm optic, and hoisted in the evenings on a teakwood pole, was commissioned in 1869. The present 14-meter high stone masonry tower with black and white bands is built on the hilltop to get a beam elevation of 82 meters above sea level.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

After loading the fresh vegetables and other items meant for the staff stationed at the Rock, we climbed inside the boat and signaled to start our journey. The wooden boat, approximately 25 feet long and 6 feet wide, powered with a 2-cylinder diesel engine, had no cabin except for a covering to protect the engine from rain and water. We were seated on blankets spread on the deck in the middle of the boat.

When we came out of the port to open sea, the twin white flashing from the Rock was clearly visible. On directing the boat towards the Rock, the red flash from the Point also came to visibility at our back, silently prompting the mariners: “Danger, Danger, Dangerous rocks all around this place. Please keep away from this area.”

By 7 p.m., the sunrise behind the Konkan Ranges took out the black curtain spread

on the rocks by the night, and brought

into visibility the 20-mm high red and white-banded circular cast iron tower commissioned in the year 1933. The remains of the first lighthouse, (commissioned in 1870) on the farthest rock – named Rock Island – also came into view. Burnt Island is not as high as Vengurla and that might have reasoned the abandoning of that light. Rawool, who had served there for three years during 1992-1995, has remembered seeing waves crossing the Burnt Rock when the sea turned furious during southwest monsoon rain seasons. But still, the stone masonry structure is standing erect on the Rock, fighting the sea and weather without maintenance, and this made me silently salute the people who constructed those structures long ago.

The first lighthouse at Vengurla was on a

9-meter high square stone masonry tower with a double-wick lamp inside a sixth order optic. Upon installing the present tower, the old was used as an observation post by installing a powerful telescope inside the lantern room; the basement of that tower is still intact on the Rock. The first order optic from BBT France, with a clockwork mechanism to rotate it, was installed in the year 1958, and the 85-mm Autoform PV burner illuminant, then installed, was replaced with a cluster of metal halidelamps powered by solar panels and storage batteries in 2002. The station is still manned.

The other big rock nearby is called Bird’s Rock for it shelters thousands of migratory birds in seasons. In peak seasons, when seen from a distance, the Rock is not visible due to the massive number of birds nesting there. All that is seen is the feather color of the birds. I was not lucky to see even a single bird on that rock during my visit, as it was not the migrating season.

At the Rock, the station staff that had the message of our arrival through RT, were on the steps of the mooring point to receive us. There is no anchoring point or mooring buoy near the Rock except for a rope line tied across the U-shaped curve of the rock, where the steps are cut on the rock to climb up. When two of the boatmen steadied the boat parallel to the rock holding the rope line, the third one, using a bamboo pole, was busy to prevent the boat crashing on the rock. After unloading the materials, we climbed the rock with the help of rope line hanging from the top. Rawool, who was known to some of the station staff, introduced me to them all.

Mr. V. D. Naik, the attendant, served us hot black tea and biscuits, and after that, without wasting time, I started venturing the Rock. First we climbed the tower and had a glimpse of the beautifully maintained 1st order Fresnel lens. From the outside gallery, the array of rocks lining from Burnt Rock to Kochhra shore was clearly visible. The hillock on which the Vengurla Point Lighthouse stands was also visible on the horizon, but not the tower. Since all the staff members are now occupying the bachelor quarters constructed back in 1930, the family quarters constructed in the '60s are deserted, and are in dilapidated condition. The Lighthouse Department, which allowed its staff to keep their families on the Rock in the fair seasons, later discouraged them from taking their families to the Rock after the withdrawal of M.L. Vengurla from service; boat trips are limited to once a week, for it is difficult to arrange boats for emergencies like medical attention in odd hours. Rawool told me a bitter experience during his service at the Rock.

During a fair season in 1995, Rawool took his wife and daughter, Prachithi, who had not reached her second birthday yet. Everything went fine but when the sun signed off for the day, Prachithi became violently ill; when offered tablets from the First Aid box, she cried and refused them. Whatever fluids were given were immediately vomited. To their bad luck, the RT connection to the Point was cut during the night due to technical problems. The child’s body was getting more dehydrated minute by minute and the Rawools, along with the other station staff, had no other way but to sit around the child and pray to the Almighty. On daybreak when a fishing boat became visible, the Rawools attracted attention by waving a flag at them. The boat people helped to admit the child to the nearest hospital, and after administration of intravenous fluids and medicines, she survived. Now Prachithi is 11 years old. The bitter experience still remains alive in the family’s minds like a nightmare.

Some of the staff remembered with shock what happened to Mr. Bangalore and family in the 1970s. Mr. Bangalore was then head head lightkeeper at the Rock, and being a fair season, was keeping his family there. When Mr. Bangalore’s child fell sick, they sent a message to the Point requesting the services of a boat. Since M.L. Vengurla was under repair, a country boat was sent to the Rock to take the child to shore for hospitalization. The sea was a bit rough that day since morning, and when they reached shore to bring the child in, the weather conditions worsened and the waves were too high, preventing a safe landing. The waves were breaking violently at the jetty and all along the shore. They tried for an hour to land safely. The people in the boat were aware that if they capsized on the breaking waves of that rocky shore, it would cost all their lives. Finding no alternative, they turned the boat back to the Rock. On the way back, they had to witness the child’s soul as it left her body — a body that hardly started its voyage of life. They took the body to shore the next day for cremation.

Mr. Rawool took me to the marking stone of Mrs. Jacob. It was not an easy climb down to that place as the rock sides are quick slopes and no steps are cut on the rock to reach that place. If you slipped, you would be thrown directly into the deep sea and may not survive the fall. There were many sharp-edged rocks to collide with along the way down.

We safely made our way and I slowly cleaned the marble stone to read ‘JOSEPHINE ELIZABETH JACOB, who fell asleep in Jesus on 20th July 1933, aged 26 years.’

Josephine, who was the wife of a lightkeeper who served at the Vengurla Rock Lighthouse, fell sick there in a rough rainy season. The month of July, being the peak season of southwest monsoon rains in India, made the sea too rough that no boat could beat its fury to reach her. Without medical attention, she died at the Rock on the 20th of July 1933. The final sad part of the story is that the rough weather continued, and they could not take her body to the shore for burial. It was not possible to dig a hole on that granite rock to give her a decent funeral. They had to make a coffin out of packing cases available at the station, and drop her body into the sea from the Rock. The memory stone was later laid at the spot from where the body was dropped into the sea. I silently prayed for the soul of that ill-fated lighthouse keeper’s wife.

A few feet south to the marking stone and cross are the steep, narrow steps cut for landing in the rainy season, when the sea is too rough due to the southwest wind. This was the place from where Mr. Hodekar, head lightkeeper, disappeared into the sea. And it happened on another 20th of July.

Mr. Hodekar had the hobby of fishing and would not eat a meal without fish. Even in the monsoon rainy season, he would climb down the narrow steps of the landing and fish while sitting at the bottom of the Point. On July 20th, 1992, Mr. Rawool and the other assistants saw Mr. Hodekar going to his fishing spot, but he was never to return. Mr. Hodekar was born into a family of fishermen and was able to swim in the rough sea. It is thought that he might have fallen from the steps and hit his head on a sharp rock, or a tidal wave may have washed him to sea at an unexpected moment. His body was seen floating at a distance from the Rock. After six hours, however, the body could not be retrieved since there was no boat stationed at the Rock. Later, a search party was formed and sent from Vengurla Point. Sadly, it was too late for Mr. Hodekar’s body had been taken out to sea by the waves.

In December 1998, another mysterious disappearance occurred and Mr. Sreehari, an attendant, was lost without a trace. These incidents and the four-month continuous service without relief during the monsoon season, give the lightkeepers of the Indian Lighthouse Department nightmares. Vengurla Rock is known as the toughest station to serve at, which is why I took this trip to personally feel the difficulties there. After spending

only two hours on the Rock, we returned to

the Point. Even though the stay on the Rock was short, the stories of the lighthouse keeper have deeply penetrated my heart and will never be forgotten.

This story appeared in the September 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History